Calama, Chile The Most Beautiful Place I’ve Ever Been

There is no oxygen in La Paz.

Call me crazy, but I’m obsessed with the stuff. I can’t get enough of it. And at 3500 meters above sea level, in the highest capital city in the world, I’m simply not able to get my fix.

Trivia: La Paz is not technically the capital of Bolivia, but after winning a civil war over the matter, it’s pretty much earned the title.

La Paz is like a methadone clinic for oxygen addicts. After a few days, I could get by on a lot less, but the hankering never quite goes away.

Img_1066

The city was founded by the Spanish inside a massive volcanic crater to serve as a rest stop on the trail from Lima to Rio. The unusual layout puts the outlying neighborhoods on the steep crater walls, climbing all the way up to the rim on every side.

We arrived with a tight schedule to keep. We needed to continue south to the remote desert town of Uyuni so we could visit the salt flats, then make it back to La Paz within three days for our flight to Argentina.

The plan was blown out of the water on the first morning when we found out the 15 hour bus ride had been stretched by the rainy season into an 18 hour ride. A further update put this time at a barely fathomable 24 hours each way.

Hiring a driver wouldn’t have saved us much time and would have cost a lot. There are no functioning airstrips anywhere near Uyuni, so flying was out of the question. The bus ride sounded so bad, I wasn’t sure we could stand even the first half of the journey – nevermind that we’d have to hop on the same bus back a few hours later.

There is a train to Uyuni, but with Argentinian students on holiday, it was booked solid.

We pondered our options and decided the salt flats would be worth the extra time it would take us to get there. We cut Argentina from our itinerary, cancelled the necessary flights, and booked the next available train. By skipping Argentina, we realized we’d be very close to the border of our next destination, Chile, and decided to make our own way there once we reached Uyuni.

With everything settled, we were left with a day and a half to kick around La Paz.

We went to the massive street market.

Img_1078

It takes up about 30 square blocks of the city and sells everything your average La Pazian needs. It is in many ways the opposite of Wal-Mart; rather than one company selling everything for ridiculously low prices by bleeding their suppliers dry, you’ve got a million people selling everything for ridiculously low prices because of fierce, shoulder-to-shoulder competition.

I prefer the latter.

We visited the much-ballyhooed La Paz witchcraft market. There didn’t seem to be much to ballyhoo about unless you get excited about mummified llama fetuses and inflated toads with bulging red eyeballs.

Img_1060 Img_1063

…my expectations were higher.

All the major cities we’ve visited have had what seems to be a single major backpacker hostel. The advantage of staying in such places is their tendency to serve key backpacker needs such as internet access and laundry at very reasonable prices. The disadvantage is their tolerance for horrible guitar-playing.

…If I could just take a minute here to address the male backpacker demographic: please, don’t bring your guitar. It’s not going to get you laid. It’s not going to help you meet people. It’s just going to annoy them. No one wants to hear your rendition of "Redemption Song." And speaking on behalf of the flight attendants, they’re tired of having to cram your pawn shop treasure into the gutter between 1st class and coach.

Moving on. In La Paz, the hostel of choice is called Hotel El Solario. Many of the people staying at Hotel El Solario were either about to go on or had just come back from a mountain biking trip down “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.” “The World’s Most Dangerous Road” is a stretch of pavement leading down out of the Andes and into the sea-level Amazon basin at a length of only 64 kilometers. It used to be a somewhat-hazardous but not altogether noteworthy road until someone declared it to be “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.” Now hundreds of people have to ride mountain bikes down it every day…myself and female companion not among them.

Img_1079

The way most people get around the city is on microbuses – similar to the matatus in parts of Africa. They follow general routes which are modified on the fly depending on the destination of each passenger. The upcoming neighborhoods are advertised to passing pedestrians by young men who stick their heads out the side and yell really loud. Everything they say sounds like complete gibberish.

We walked to the upscale part of town and had a fancy steak dinner.

Img_1073

Each plate cost a whopping 6 bucks. We were the only two customers in the restaurant. The owner was both the cook and the waiter’s mother.

Despite the fabulousness of the meal, it still forced the little man who lives inside my body to pull the big red lever down below. Melissa too. Our big red levers are pulled often. The only food we discovered in Bolivia that’s guaranteed not to cause any lever-pulling is something we call the miracle burger.

Img_1145

Miracle burgers are cooked on the side of the road in little wooden shacks. They take about 30 seconds to grill and come served with lettuce, tomato, grilled onion, and heaps of delicious spices. Miracle burgers cost about $0.19. For another $0.13, you can have fries pressed under the bun. Miracle burgers are delicious.

We ate a lot of miracle burgers in Bolivia.

Here’s me doing what I do most of the time. Feel free to notice the tan and weight loss.

Matt_typing

Up at dawn, taxi to the bus station for our 3 hour bus ride to Uluru so we can catch the 12 hour train to Uyuni. Bolivia’s commitment to their growing tourism business is made very clear by the presence of Kevlar-armored “tourist police.”

Img_1083

On the bus to Uluru, a man stood in the aisle shouting to all the passengers. With our rusty Spanish, we eventually determined that he was informing them about recent events in local politics. It was a live presentation of the nightly news.

He was carrying a briefcase, which we asked him to show to us. Inside were four soft cover, easy-to-read textbooks for sale. One taught English; one taught about the geography, politics, and economics of Bolivia; one was full of quotes from historical figures like Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King; and one taught how to use Microsoft Office. This is a program that was started a few years ago by the Bolivian government to improve the minds of its populace and make them more able to compete for high-paying jobs on an international level.

An impoverished, third world government endeavoring to better the lives of its citizens. How about that for a change?…How about that?

The train to Uyuni was not as stimulating.

Img_1085

Not much to say about Uyuni. Here are some dogs.

Img_1139

Husky

We went to bed, woke up the next morning, and caught a 4WD truck out to see the Salar de Uyuni. First they took us here.

Img_1090_1 Img_1094_1

And then this happened.

Img_1110

…let me back up a bit.

They took us to a small village on the outskirts of the salt flats. The village used to exist solely to process the salt from the flats into bricks for shipping. Now it’s where the tourists eat lunch.

Img_1095

The bricks are all over the place. They make chairs out of them, tables, and most of the knick-knacks for sale. You can buy a salt shaker made out of salt.

With our tummies full of flavorless noodles and llama, we left the dirt road and started into the 9000 square kilometers of the largest salt flats in the world.

In this part of the year, the rainy season leaves several inches of perfectly still water on the ground, which reflects the full expanse of the sky as a single, continuous sheet of glass.

Img_1098

The truck cuts through it like a ship at sea. Before long, the window views were not enough and the intrepid among us crawled onto the roof, completing the nautical illusion.

Img_1104

I don’t believe I have ever, in my life, felt less like I was on planet earth.

The dark speck on the horizon soon grew to become The Salt Hotel; an unlikely outpost built entirely out of you-know-what. The Salt Hotel is in the process of being closed down after it was discovered how badly the human presence was damaging the surrounding environment. Now it’s just a short stop with no opportunity for eating or bathroom breaks.

I took some pretty pictures of my girlfriend.

Img_1127 Img_1135

…and yes, I danced.

It’s a cliche to say the pictures don’t do a place justice. I’ve certainly had my share of that feeling. For once I can say they capture a spot perfectly. They might even improve on it a little bit, as these don’t hurt my feet as much to look at.

The salt forms in an endless stretch of rock-hard hexagons. Every once in a while you’ll spot a hole in the ground that you can put a hand or foot through. Just enough light gets in to show that the salt flat doesn’t go down very deep, and beneath it is several feet of liquid. Within the hole, the warm surface water turns frigid cold. We found a particularly large one and I lowered Melissa down into it until she started screaming.

Very cold.

We’d planned to move on from Uyuni by train to the Chilean border, but upon investigation, a faster and more interesting alternative was made clear. We booked to go by 4WD to the south through the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. It was a 12 hour drive, but it saved us a day and took us through some extremely remote territory – about as high into the Andes as anyone can go without an ice pick or a propeller.

We shared the vehicle with a guy from Belgium named David and his mother. The mother only spoke Belch, but her son spoke English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian. He’d also spent four years touring the world by himself on a bicycle, living on $5 a day. He was also an unbearable asshole.

What is it about the Belch? I’ve never met one I can stand talking to for more than a minute. They’re conversation assassins. It must be a cultural thing; when one of us was speaking and he decided he wanted to talk, he’d just started talking. If we tried to ignore the interruption and continue, he’d just talk louder until he’d drowned out the competition. And then when he finished talking, he’d just start over again from the beginning. It was always some piece of wisdom he was dispensing, and he’d dispense each piece about three or four times before moving onto the next one.

Melissa and I both wanted to strangle David. His poor mother, oblivious to anything that wasn’t in Belch, just sat there shivering in the cold.

The driver, Victor, decided he hated my guts when I asked him to turn down his Godawful Bolivian pop music tape. From that point on, he spoke only to David. It was all in Spanish, but we understood a fair bit of it. Much of the conversation centered around how little patience he has for obnoxious, demanding tourists.

We left in the early evening, drove for a few hours, and stopped for the night at the Four Seasons Bolivia.

Img_1150 Img_1151

We woke up at quarter to four the next morning and hit the road. Shortly after dawn, we reached an altitude of over 5000 meters. That’s twice as high as Quito, where we first got hit by the lack of oxygen. It’s less than a thousand meters shy of the summit of Kilimanjaro, where I vomited my guts out and nearly got rushed down the mountain with altitude sickness.

How else can I put this?…it’s very very high up. But the views were great.

Img_1158 Img_1154

We passed a strange rock formation that I recognized from photographs as the rock tree. I asked Victor to stop. He groaned at my insolence and gave me one minute to go look at it.

Img_1159

At a pee break, I took this picture of the truck. I didn’t realize when I was taking it that the Belch guy’s mum was doing her business directly behind the rear bumper, and could be seen bare-assed in the image.

Img_1165

I don’t really feel too bad about that.

We stopped at some hot springs. I am no longer excited by hot springs. The novelty isn’t very novel. You don’t really get anything out of a hot spring that you can’t get out of a bath tub, except it’s freezing cold when you get in and out and you have to listen to a bunch of Germans who think it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to them.

Img_1167

There was a green lake that’s green because of some green algae that grows on it, and a red lake that’s red because of some red algae that grows on it. Big deal…I guess I was just sick of listening to the Belch guy. He kept telling us we were seeing the most beautiful scenery in the world. He assumed that as Americans, we’d never been out of our backyards and were too ignorant to appreciate the wonderment. I wasn’t going to bother telling him differently, but I’ll tell you:

Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa is a nice place. It’s stark and pretty. But if you die without seeing it, your life wasn’t necessarily a complete waste of time.

We stopped near the border to wait for a bus that would take us across to Chile. David thanked the driver for driving us, hugged him passionately, and waxed rhapsodic to us about how Victor was the greatest driver he’d ever ridden with and should be racing professionally in the rally cross circuit.

I think he may have been overstating things somewhat.

We shared our slice of barren wasteland with a tour group that was making its way through all of South America on a massive overland loop from Quito to Caracas. It was a mix of Kiwis, Australians, Canadians, and Brits, with not an American among them.

What is it with us, folks? All over the world, these kids are finishing school and taking off to see the world. It’s a standard rite of passage. And I get emails literally every day from people asking me how I do it.

I didn’t invent world travel. I’m not even particularly good at it. There are lots and lots of people out there. It’s just that very few of them are American.

We talked to an Australian girl for a while who was finishing up South America and then heading on to Oman. I have an unabashed fondness for Australians — especially as travelers. They’ve got a sensibility that makes them really good at it. They’re tough, they don’t complain, and they can manage to laugh about pretty much any situation, no matter how bleak or miserable.

She drilled us on our traveling plans and kept asking questions until we finally broke and, for the first time on our trip, told a stranger about the dancing video.

"So, someone is paying you to travel around the world and dance wherever you want?"
"…pretty much, yeah."
"You must be a good dancer."
"Actually, I’m really really bad at it."

We hopped on a bus with the tour group. There’s Melissa in back looking incredibly miniature.

Img_1171

We stopped at a funnly little intersection in the desert where the driver told me we could turn left for Uruguay and Argentina, or right for Chile.

We turned right and the bus took us down 2500 meters out of the Andes. It could be the world’s most dangerous road, except no one has bothered to name it "The World’s Most Dangerous Road." We passed by car after car stalled on the side while trying to go up in the other direction. The steepness of the incline, combined with the dryness, the desert heat, and the decreased oxygen, make it very very easy for engines to break down. The ones who weren’t stalled were all going at speeds under 5 miles an hour.

The bus dropped us in the boom town of San Pedro de Atacama. Over the last decade, it’s become the tourist hub of northern Chile. Problem is: there isn’t really anything to see or do in northern Chile.

Still, the cultural differences with Bolivia were immediately obvious. For one thing, lunch went from costing $.62 to costing $30. Even more jolting, many of the other tourists were actual Chileans. Chileans take vacations and travel. Chileans have disposable income.

This I did not know in advance. But the explanation is fairly simple: Chileans and Argentinians are basically displaced Europeans, bringing with them all the associated advantages. The northern countries, by comparison, are a more indigenous mix.

We booked to see the Tatio geysers; billed as the highest-altitude geysers in the world — which is sort of like being the hairiest left-handed person in the world, or the albino with the best sense of smell.

The van picked us up at 4am.

Img_1183 Img_1185

It wasn’t worth getting up for.

Afterwards, they kept us enthralled with a trip to a traditional village where the locals served up empanadas and meat on a stick.

And to top it all off, more bathing in hot springs.

We got back in the afternoon. The only other nearby attraction that seemed remotely worthwhile was the Valle de la Luna; a barren landscape that someone cleverly likened to the moon in an attempt to make it seem more interesting.

It’s 17 kilometers from San Pedro. We could have easily seen it at sunset with everyone else, but I thought it’d be fun to ride bikes out there on our own.

I will never again opt to ride bikes at high altitude in the world’s driest desert on a hot afternoon.

Img_1190

…that was a bad idea.

We made about a fifth of the way there and nearly died. Our only salvation was an inexplicably-positioned bus stop at the corner of Nothing st. and Nowhere ave.

Img_1188

We hid under it for a good half hour, until our water ran out. At that point, survival dictated getting back on our bikes and sweating our way into town, exhausted and defeated.

My ideas aren’t always all that great.

In the evening, we caught a Salon Cama bus to Calama. Salon Cama, we learned, is the absolute summit of luxury in a country that relies heavily on its buses. We were given pillows. Our seats reclined into beds. Curtains could be drawn over the windows. There was a TV playing movies. Fancy headphones descended from the ceiling. There was a bathroom, watercooler, you name it. It was the most comfortable bus trip I’ve ever taken. I could’ve ridden it for days.

Calama marks the end of our plan-as-you-go overland odyssey from Cuzco, Peru. Tomorrow morning we fly to Santiago, and in the evening I continue on by myself to Easter Island so I can dance with some giant stone heads.